Corruption threatens Cameroon’s forests

Just more than a decade ago, Cameroon drafted a law that was intended to regulate commercial use of the country’s forests. In spite of this, corruption and uncontrolled exploitation are putting forest areas at risk, say NGOs.

The 1994 Law on the Regulation of Forests, Fauna and Fishing contains clauses that limit logging, with a view to protecting the environment. Those who wish to exploit Cameroon’s forests must obtain permits from the ministry of forests and fauna.

The forestry law also requires loggers to plant trees, in order to ensure that resources are not permanently depleted.

Nonetheless, “The law opened the way for all sorts of logging schemes and racketeering,” says Roland Bengono, an economist at the forests and fauna ministry.

He alleges that officials in charge of issuing permits extort money from loggers, a claim echoed by certain company representatives interviewed by IPS.

“You have to spend a lot to get your license granted,” said one of the loggers.

In addition, NGOs allege that permits are often granted to front companies controlled by public and military officials — this to allow them to circumvent constitutional provisions that prevent civil servants from doing business.

The eagerness of government officials to profit from the logging industry is attributed to declining revenues in the cocoa and coffee sectors: these commodities used to be Cameroon’s main export products after petroleum.

A staffer at the Centre for the Environment and Development, located in the capital, Yaoundé, says NGOs are reluctant to name companies accused of perpetrating corruption in the logging industry “for fear of reprisals”.

The police shy away from investigating the matter as well, he adds, because those who are profiting illegally from logging allegedly include senior police officials.

Companies that try to steer clear of corruption apparently also find themselves in the cross-hairs.

“If you don’t want to behave like them, you’ll get slapped with frivolous fees … Or, the possibility of getting your permit withdrawn will quickly persuade you to think otherwise,” says Conrentin Mballa, an executive at the Hazim Logging Company. “This, unfortunately, contributes even further to the looting of the forest and the perpetuation of corruption.”

According to the Programme to Secure Forestry Receipts, established in 2000, fees paid to the public Treasury by logging companies brought in $98-million last year. Half of that amount was supposed to have been reinvested in rural communities and those adjacent to logging areas.

However, NGOs that monitor the forestry sector claim that little of this money has made its way to those in need.

“Barely 20% of the money received is invested in local development,” says Patrice Bigombe Logo, director of the Yaoundé-based Research and Action Centre for Sustainable Development in Central Africa. “The rest is used [for] … the personal profit of local elites.”

As an example of this trend, he cites the case of Yokadouma, a rural village about 400km east of Yaoundé. Its budget rose from just less than $30 000 15 years ago to about $780 000 last year. But rarely, Bigombe says, are new roads or other facilities built in the village.

Last year, Cameroon was classed as the African country seen to be the second-most corrupt of those surveyed for the Corruption Perceptions Index. This list is published yearly by Transparency International, an anti-graft watchdog based in Berlin. Only Nigeria fared worse in the 2004 index.

In a report issued earlier this year, British-based NGO Global Witness alleged that close to 700 000 cubic metres of wood are being harvested illegally each year in Cameroon. This is made possible by the willingness of officials to certify Cameroonian logs as having come from the Central African Republic or the Congo. (Global Witness investigates the relations between resource exploitation and rights abuse, in countries around the world.)

Similar allegations are heard in other quarters.

“We’re asked for bribes amounting to millions of CFA francs, and we often pay these out,” says a French national involved in the logging industry, who wishes to remain anonymous. “This allows firms to avoid paying logging taxes, and taxes for the port of Douala which are imposed for trade relating to Cameroonian wood.

“We’d like to uphold the law. But, what would you have us do when it is ministry officials themselves who are harassing us?”

From Douala, logs are shipped to Europe and Asia. In addition to French firms, Swiss, Belgian, Chinese and Italian companies have logging concessions in Cameroon.

A senior civil servant in the forests and fauna ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity maintains that action will be taken against officials who are shown to be corrupt.

To date, a number of port officials found guilty of graft have been dismissed — while a French logging company, Bolloré, was fined almost $12 000 in 2001 for illegal activities. — IPS

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